Stakes rise in US-Iran standoff

As the UN reports substantial progress in Iran's nuclear program and US ships gather in the Persian Gulf, US and Iranian diplomats prepare to meet in Iraq.

Iran says it will not succumb to "enemy" efforts to halt its nuclear program, as a US armada deployed in the Persian Gulf – setting the stage for an important week in Iran's standoff with the United States and other world powers.

US and Iranian diplomats are slated to meet in Baghdad Monday, for the first time, to discuss security in Iraq. And key powers are meeting to renew Western efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions after the UN's nuclear watchdog reported substantial progress in enrichment capability by Iran. The report has prompted calls from some countries for a third set of sanctions.

"The enemies want us to surrender so that Iran won't have anything to say in the world," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday. "With the backing of the Iranian nation, we are not afraid of the enemies' ... psychological warfare, and with God's help, we have come to our ultimate goals."

The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows that Iran has stepped up uranium-enrichment efforts in defiance of Security Council demands.

This week, US commanders have again accused Iran of backing anti-US forces of all stripes in Iraq. On Wednesday, nine warships with 17,000 sailors and marines – the largest US force assembled there in years – passed through the Strait of Hormuz, just miles off Iran's coast. The exercises are to end with an amphibious landing on Kuwait's beaches.

IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei warned that his agency's ability to monitor Iran's nuclear advances was "deteriorating" and that, if Iran chose, it could probably build a weapon in three to eight years. "We are moving toward Iran building capacity and knowledge without the agency in a position to verify the nature or scope of that program," Mr. ElBaradei said in Luxembourg. "If we continue in that direction we will end up with a major confrontation."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "one should not hesitate to toughen the sanctions"; China said diplomatic efforts should "intensify."

But nuclear experts urge caution about Iran's achievements, as described in the IAEA report. "There is always a tension in how the US and other governments react because there's an instinct to play up Iranian advances in order to raise a sense of urgency," says Michael Levi, a nuclear expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "[But] at the same time, by doing that, you help Iran create facts on the ground that are harder to reverse politically." Ambiguity in the report, he says, means "it's still unclear how much Iran has accomplished."

The report states that Iran is now operating 1,312 centrifuges in eight cascades, with 820 more being tested or assembled. Only a handful were operational just over a year ago, when Iran declared itself a member of the nuclear club, with its first successful enrichment in minute quantities.

Uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into cascades of linked centrifuges to enrich the material to no more than 5 percent for nuclear power – Iran's declared aim. But the same technique can be used to boost enrichment to the 90 percent required for nuclear weapons – which the US and key Western countries allege is Iran's goal. Iran's short-term plan for 3,000 centrifuges would be enough, technically, to produce at least one bomb per year.

"The report confirms that Iran is moving ahead as fast as it can, to get as many centrifuges in place as quickly as it can," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"They want to get 3,000 centrifuges stood up, so that if they were to get into negotiations, that would be their starting point," says Mr. Fitzpatrick, contacted in Luxembourg. "They would say: 'We won't go beyond 3,000, but we can't dismantle what we already have.' "

White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe called the report a "laundry list of Iran's continued defiance of the international community," saying "it shows that Iran's leaders are only furthering the isolation of [Iranians]."

ElBaradei is under fire by the US and European allies for saying the Western strategy of demanding suspension had been outstripped by Iranian progress.

"We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich," ElBaradei told The New York Times last week. "From now, it's simply a question of perfecting that knowledge."

Still, analysts say that the four-page report leaves many questions. It gives no details about how well the centrifuge cascades are operating or if they work around the clock. The report notes that Iran "agreed to a modified safeguards approach," which includes "unannounced inspections" of the enrichment site at Natanz. The fact that only 264.8 kgs (about 584 lbs.) of uranium hexaflouride (UF6) gas was used indicated that Iran may still be using purer material bought in the past from China – not Iran's homemade UF6.

"Iran has overcome certain barriers, but to suggest, as ElBaradei does, that there is simply nothing that can be done anymore – that Iran has essentially mastered the program, when the IAEA report itself says there is an enormous amount of analysis still to be done – is a stretch," says Levi.

If Iran were to get 3,000 centrifuges working, pushing enrichment to levels required to make a bomb, there would be more hurdles. "Once you start using very highly enriched uranium, you get worried about 'criticality' –about too much stuff getting in one place at the same time, and melting down," says Levi. "So you are likely to start somewhat gingerly, to make sure you've got everything right."

Regarding the IAEA report, "I don't think there is enough data here to say ... it's too late," says Fitzpatrick. "There is still time before Iran can produce HEU for weapons." And the environment has changed since years ago, when Pakistan moved secretly from enrichment technology to a weapon capacity in a decade "because the world was not alert enough to stop the technology flow," he adds.

"I think the world's exporting countries are much more attuned ... and have put on strict controls," he says. "They probably can prevent Iran from getting additional material [from abroad] to expand its program."

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